John Batelle’s “The Search” – Ch. 10-12, Eric Raymond’s “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” and Tim O’Reilly’s “What is Web 2.0”

            The last three chapters of John Batelle’s “The Search” covers Google’s post-IPO phase and its development of a strategy to allow the company to grow from its then size of 3000 employees to as many as ten times that.  The leadership structure – with CEO Schmidt “[making] the trains run,” Page and Brin in charge of vision and product development, and Intuit founder Bill Campbell providing informal coaching – has long been a controversial one in the eyes of Wall Street (which seeks an unambiguous leadership structure) and some employees (who feel it’s impossible for anything to get done without Page and Brin’s direct approval).

The company, its founders, and CEO, who had thrived in an informal environment with tight central control for so long, knew that they needed to change their style as the company grew exponentially larger, managing ever more employees, users, shareholders, partners, and competitors, and they hired an ex-McKinsey consultant to help them lead the charge in that regard.

            Batelle then launches into an analysis of the approach to search by Google and their main competitor, Yahoo.  He points out how Google, started as a technology-driven company focused on using mathematical algorithms to solve the internet search question, is much more reticent to integrate commercial and editorial content into their search results, while Yahoo, started as a subjective collection of favorite links, openly touts the benefits of human involvement in tailoring search results to what are perceived as those most desired by their customers.  He argues that ultimately Google and Yahoo are both in what is primarily a media business and that search and commerce largely drive each other (since commerce involves people searching for products and services), implying that Google needs to become more comfortable with the commercial side of the search business.

            Batelle goes on to speculate on the future of Google’s innovation.  Based on conversations with CEO Schmidt, he believes the company is aiming to “provide a platform that mediates supply and demand for pretty much the entire world economy.”  In the pursuit of Google’s mission of “organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful,” he sees Google building on Microsoft’s accomplishment of “a computer on every desk,” the connection of every computer to every other computer by way of the internet, the proliferation of information (by way of GPS technology, RFID tags, UPC data, mobile text and video, etc.), and their (Google’s) own ability “to deliver hugely scaled services over the Web platform,” offering seemingly unlimited growth potential.

  1. The last piece of the puzzle will be a historic record of the internet so that when web pages are modified or deleted, previous versions won’t be lost.

            In March, Tom Simpson discussed a current effort aimed directly at this theoretical goal of perfect search in his blog – Dr. Stephen Wolfram’s Wolfram Alpha.  The system’s unveiling at Harvard last week was discussed in The Independent on May 3.

           Various fundamental premises underlying the wildly successful growth of Google, search, the internet and the web in general are highlighted in the articles “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” by Eric Raymond and “What is Web 2.0” by Tim O’Reilly.  Raymond discusses the lessons of Linux and similar open-source software development projects (the “bazaar), which have shown that evolutionary programming, rapid prototyping (releasing early and often), delegating as much as possible, and being extremely open can actually work very effectively, as opposed to the more traditional hierarchical development model, with structured control of the process and planned release dates (the “cathedral”).  Many of these lessons have direct parallels to the successful growth of online media; for example:

  •  Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer’s personal itch.  /  To solve an interesting problem, start by finding a problem that is interesting to you.  Likewise, the best online applications usually address a direct need (e.g., Google itself).
  • Good programmers know what to write. Great ones know what to rewrite (and reuse).  /  Treating your users as co-developers is your least-hassle route to rapid code improvement and effective debugging.  /  Release early. Release often. And listen to your customers.  /  Given a large enough beta-tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix obvious to someone.  /  If you treat your beta-testers as if they’re your most valuable resource, they will respond by becoming your most valuable resource.  /   The next best thing to having good ideas is recognizing good ideas from your users. Sometimes the latter is better.  Lots of parallels in API’s, the iterative nature of blogs, tweets, etc.
  • Often, the most striking and innovative solutions come from realizing that your concept of the problem was wrong.  Consider the demise of DEC as it pursued its hardware focus despite having the successful AltaVista search engine in the palm of its hand.
  • “Perfection (in design) is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away.”  Like Google’s bare-bones search home page.
  • Any tool should be useful in the expected way, but a truly great tool lends itself to uses you never expected.  Again, API’s are a perfect example, like the mashup of Google and Craigslist.

 It’s interesting to note that parallels and analogies to Raymond’s analysis of the cathedral and the bazaar have been drawn by members of and commentators on various industries, from tech to healthcare to pharmaceuticals to the newspaper industry.

            O’Reilly’s article proposes 7 major principles that define Web 2.0, again with lots of parallels to the success of Google, search, and the broader internet and web: 

  • The web as platform.  E.g., Google is a service which exploits the web as its platform regardless of hardware, as opposed to Netscape, a product (a desktop application) which exploited the web too, but as a means rather than a platform.  Other examples given were Overture and AdSense vs. DoubleClick and BitTorrent vs. Akamai.
  • Harnessing collective intelligence.  E.g., hyperlinking, PageRank, Amazon reviews and suggestions, Wikipedia, tagging sites, blogs, RSS, etc.
  • Data is the next “Intel Inside.”  E.g., the valuable data sets owned by digital mapping companies, Amazon, etc.
  • End of the software release cycle.  Replaced by a need for constant iteration and a reliance on users as co-developers (as do Google, Flickr, etc.)
  • Lightweight programming models.  Syndication, “hackability,” and remixability over coordination and control (as used by Amazon, Google Maps, etc.).
  • Software above the level of a single device.  Much like iTunes and the iPod, mobile applications, etc.
  • Rich user experiences.  E.g., G-mail’s combination of e-mail and related applications based around database competencies, searchability, and universal accessibility. 

(These principles and the Web 2.0 concept have become ubiquitous – see the following Web 2.0 blog to see how the 7 principles can be restated in 50 different ways!)

            In short, we start to see a common theme emerging from multiple sources about what has brought Google and other successful web and new media companies the success they’ve had as well as what traits will help such companies to remain successful in the Web 2.0 era and beyond.  It all seems to come back to some of our most basic needs as human beings – to acquire knowledge, to master our domain, and to interconnect with our fellow man – and the companies that most effectively use new technology to do so will be the ultimate winners.


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